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Patio dining: How to handle the great outdoors

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Based on the interest in a recent SmartBrief blog post, “Al fresco dining options bloom with spring,” I reached out to Noah Corwin, operations manager of Redwood Restaurant and Bar, and German Broggi, food and beverage director for Park Hyatt Washington, to find out more about their outdoor dining spaces.

What permits did you need to serve outdoors? Were there challenges when you took over the space and brought diners outside?

Redwood: We have an addendum to our liquor license that allows us to serve alcohol outside. We must keep our guests in a contained area and not allow alcohol to be taken off the premises. Challenges, sure … the tables are twice as far from our kitchen, and the charming cobblestone surface on Bethesda Lane is an absolute nightmare when trying to have flat, balanced tables for dining on.

Park Hyatt: Our guests actually appreciate sitting outside and enjoy the atmosphere, surrounded by the chef’s garden and soothing fountain.

What is the seating capacity on your patio, and how does that affect indoor covers?

Redwood: We have 70 seats on our dining patio and 40 seats on our bar patio. When it’s nice, people want to sit outside, and in general, the indoor tables become the second option for people who don’t want to wait. We don’t take reservations at any of our outdoor tables so it doesn’t affect the number of reservations we can take.

Park Hyatt: The patio seats 40, including a new communal table for 12 guests. The patio typically does not affect indoor covers as we do not accept outdoor reservations. When guests make their reservations, they are actually booking for an indoor seat, and if a table is available outdoors it is an added bonus.

How do you decide to keep the patio open when the weather is humid or expecting a downpour?

Redwood: We always keep our tables outside so when it’s humid if people want to sit outside we will serve them outside. In regard to rain, we watch the weather very carefully. There have definitely been times when there is a mad dash for cover inside. You just have to roll with and try and find tables for everyone. We once had a table of two that was having so much fun they decided to stay outside in a downpour and finish their meal. They were partially covered by an umbrella so their food stayed somewhat dry, but they were totally drenched and in amazing spirits.

Park Hyatt: This year we have placed heaters on the patio to assist with battling cold weather conditions as well as large umbrellas to provide shade when it is too hot or sunny.

How do you handle the unexpected, such as bugs, birds and other surprises that come with the outdoors?

Redwood: All you can do is treat people with respect and try to be graceful. You have to remember that it’s embarrassing to have a bird drop something special on you so put yourself in your guests’ shoes. I think about what I would want in the situation, which is usually some privacy, a little humor and some napkins and club soda.

Park Hyatt: We have our own bird houses hanging on the trees surrounding the terrace, and we appreciate the visiting birds as they are part of our landscape. Our herb garden also attracts a lot of butterflies during sunny days!

What advice would you give to other restaurants looking to serve food outdoors?

Redwood: Be prepared for anything. Be patient with people who want to sit for four hours and have one drink, but have a great reason to move them to the bar. Don’t forget that anyone sitting outside is generally one notch closer to relaxation than one sitting inside. Eating outside brings us to some other place, maybe a meal on the beach in Cinque Terre during your honeymoon, maybe backyard barbecues as a kid, maybe picnics in Central Park. No matter what, outdoor dining transforms people so the best advice is to do what you do best as a restaurant and help your guest along with their ride.

Park Hyatt: Outdoor space is a opportunity to create a different ambiance. Don’t be shy. Look at your space. You can do great things on a small patio, balcony or backyard! The community and guests really embrace it during the beautiful summer days and nights.

Share your outdoor dining experiences in the comments.